Playing tunes the Scots Wahey!

By Stephen Cooke – Halifax Herald

IT IS A SPOT of personal shame that in the years that I’ve been
covering the Nova Scotia music scene, I’ve yet to attend a performance
in Glace Bay’s historic Savoy Theatre. This particular oversight was at
long last corrected on Sunday afternoon with the Celtic Colours
International Festival matinee in the former movie palace titled Scots

Wahey! dedicated to some of the various forms that Scottish music has developed into over the decades.

It was an appropriate show for my Savoy christening, especially since
it opened with Glace Bay fiddle scholar Winnie Chafe, with her daughter
Patricia Chafe a respected educator in her own right on piano and Kim
Lance on viola di gamba, an ancestor of the cello.

I’ve wondered if there was a grey area between classical and chamber
music and traditional Scottish fiddle, and Lance’s viola provided the
answer, adding an earthy sonorous tone to the first jig, anchoring
Chafe’s skilled counter rhythm fiddling.

Chafe and company got the audience participation going when couples
began waltzing in the aisles to the sweet flowing medley of a trio of
tunes written by Chafe while on the long ferry ride home from Argentia,
Nfld. Her reputation as an instructor was confirmed by a tidy
three-tune lesson in Scottish fiddle history, starting with J. Scott
Skinner’s Mull Hills, followed by Neil Gow’s Lament For His Second Wife
and his son Nathaniel Gow’s Fairy Dance. The latter tune has rarely
sounded so sprightly as Chafe’s clear intonation danced the melody up
and down.

Heading back to the old country for something more contemporary,
guitarist and singer Ivan Drever, with fiddler Duncan Chisholm,
performed a mix of instrumental and vocal tunes, starting with The Rose
of St. Magnus, written for the dedication of a new stained glass window
at home in the Orkney Islands. The contemplative piece benefitted from
Drever’s strong vibrato tone and delicately shaded fingerwork.

Then Drever introduced ””someone I’ve known for a very long time,”” his
son Kris, also on hand to accompany accordionist Phil Cunningham.
Together the trio played an old English folk song, leading into some
jigs, with the lockstep playing of Chisholm and the younger Drever
providing the hypnotic backdrop for the senior Drever’s rounded bell
tone notes and intricate picking.

From this intimate trio the concert changed gears radically with Cape
Breton tenor Peter Gillis performing elaborately orchestrated
renditions of island favourites like Out on the Mira and Robert Burns’
Rattling Roaring Willie.

Gillis is a talented singer, with an expressive voice that he uses in a
number of dramatic ways, but the high gloss production with seven-piece
band and backup vocal trio felt at odds with the rest of the concert.
Still, he pulled out all the stops in a version of Alistair
MacGillivray’s Arm of Gold that had the audience on its feet; a little
dose of show biz never killed anybody.

Cunningham, with Chisholm and Kris Drever, brought things back around
with a lively set of tunes and wisecracks that, much as I hate to type
such a hackneyed phrase, put a smile on your face and a spring in your
step. His first set of jigs Charlie Hunter’s Mouse in the Cupboard and
The Rosewood were like a shot of musical espresso while the set of
original reels The Hut on Staffon Island, Hogties and Wing Commander
Don MacKenzie swept listeners along on a flurry of notes with the power
of a freshly fuelled Spitfire.

There was a whole lineup of spitfires on stage later that night at the
SAERC Auditorium in Port Hawkesbury for the annual Celtic Women
showcase, starting with Gaelic scholar and longtime friend of Celtic
Colours Margaret Bennett, who opened with a song of welcome in the
mother tongue before lending her delicate soprano to an unrequited love

””Most ballads are unrequited because unrequited lovers have more time
to write songs,”” noted Bennett before a tune from the Outer Hebrides
about a forlorn woman who will write her love using ””the blood from my
heart because it is warmer than ink.”” How romantic can you get?

Former Cherish the Ladies vocalist Cathie Ryan brought a sunny
personality and a soft, pretty voice to ballads like Karine Polwart’s
Follow the Heron Home and As the Evening Declines, an almost
country-ish meditation on a woman in her elder years who still has
strong appetites.

With the darker colourings of Hanneke Cassel’s fiddle and Greg
Anderson’s guitar, the Irish-American singer found the strong thread
running through John Spillane’s The Wild Flowers, dedicated to the
independent streak that runs through Irish and Scottish women who, like
the blooms in the woods, flourish without the cultivation required for
the rose or lily.

Recent St. F.X. grad Kimberley Fraser brought her bright, confident
playing to a wide-ranging set that included strathspeys, reels, clogs
and hornpipes, abetted by the fleet fingers of Margaree Forks’ Brian
Doyle on guitar. A technically superb player, Fraser throws in enough
downhome grit to get under the skin of her tunes and make them her own.

Celtic Women ended with two very different overseas visitors, starting
with Danish vocal duo Karen and Helene, whose a capella interpretation
of Northern European folk tradition is one of the most striking sounds
in the whole festival. Karen Mose’s savory alto blends with Helene
Blum’s airy soprano for tunes inspired by the songs of birds or the
multi-layered tapestry of the Norwegian hardanger fiddle, inspiring any
number of mental fairy tales in the listener’s mind’s eye.

Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell brought the lower register of her
bellows-powered bagpipes in a husky mix of reeds and strings, with
button accordionist Julian Sutton, fiddler Peter Tickell and guitarist
Ian Stephenson.

Playing a tune inspired by the stream running behind her house, Tickell
was able to interpret its twists and turns, slowing down around rocks
and picking up speed on the hill, with great sensitivity, while she
also displayed her skills on the fiddle with a set of tunes that was
not only fast but, dare I say it?, lickety split.

For the finale, Ryan led the ensemble through a heartfelt The Parting
Glass, an encouraging way to send the crowd off in search of a little
libation of their own.

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